Medieval Literature

During the medieval period there was a sudden rebirth of literature. Early medieval literary works were hand written and carefully illustrated by monks, on parchment made from lamb's skin, and vellum that was produced from calf's hide. Writing was done on wooden tablets which were covered in black or green wax. Most books were not bound, unless the text was valuable when it would be bound with wooden boards or with tooled leather.

New writing styles were introduced by those poets and scholars who traveled with the Crusaders. Medieval courtyards became full of song when the medieval composer troubadour sang about famous battles that involved Charlemagne, Arthur and Roland. The theory of courtly love created an interest in romantic literature. There was a tremendous growth in the written word, when scholars began to transcribe their works and began writing social commentary, while others wrote poetry. Not much is available about the background to medieval literature, however there is some information.

The Bards and the Dark Ages

Until the coming of Christianity, during the Dark Ages there was no English medieval literature to speak of. The general spoken language was Latin. What literature did exist was not written down but was handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth by English, Irish and Welsh bards or poets. A major contribution to medieval literature that is known from that period are the stories about King Arthur and the Arthurian legend. Those stories were told by the bards and are found in many Celtic myths and Welsh legends.

The Romantic Arthurian Legend

Many years later the legends and tales told by the bards, together with the romantic tales of King Arthur and with examples of courtly love, were eventually written down and made into book form, becoming the first embodiments of medieval literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh author and cleric, was the main source of information about the legends of King Arthur. He wrote Historia Regum Britanniae, The History of the Kings of Britain, in 1136. A number of other books were written in Welsh about King Arthur and the Arthurian legend. They are: Black Book of Caernarvon, Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae, Chronicon Anglicanum and Mabinogion.


When William the Conqueror came to England in the 11th century, he brought the French language to England, and throughout the entire century French and Latin were the official languages of England. French became the literary language and was officially used in the courts until the 14th century. English did not become the official language of England and the native tongue of the kings until the reign of King Henry IV.

The Epic Poems – Narrative Literature

French epic poems became popular in England after the Norman conquest. During the 11th and 12th centuries songs were sung that were written by minstrels, troubadours and trouveres who were musicians and poets who had an effect on medieval literature. They sang songs about courtly love and other romantic topics. People were expected to remember and recite the songs and epic poems by heart. The blue-blooded troubadour poets and the elite troubadours who hailed from the north of France wrote in French. Medieval epic poetry was all written to go in conjunction with music.

The Poets and Authors

There were many poets and authors who contributed to medieval literature. They included: Caedmon (mid-7th century) who wrote English poems such The Dream of the Holy Rood; Geoffrey Chaucer (1343--1400), author of the Canterbury Tales; John Gower (1330--1408) who wrote medieval poems; Dante (1265--1321) was a famous Italian poet and politician who wrote the Divine Comedy; William Langland (1332--1386), a famous poet known for Piers Plowman; the Italian Boccaccio (1313--1375), author of the Decameron; Raphael Holinshed (1529--1580), who produced the Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland

The Clerics

Many theologians and clerics contributed greatly to medieval literature. John Wycliffe (1328--1384) was a religious reformer who translated the Bible into English; Martin Luther (1483--1546) was a cleric who protested against the practice of indulgences, in the 95 Theses; Thomas Aquinas (1225--1274) wrote the Summa Theologica (Compendium of Theology) about the relationship between man and God, among other works

Medieval Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Medieval Literature, 1300-1500 By Pamela M. King Edinburgh University Press, 2011
Medieval Narrative: An Introduction By Tony Davenport Oxford University Press, 2004
Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature By Robert Thomas Lambdin; Laura Cooner Lambdin Greenwood Press, 2000
A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin Greenwood Press, 2002
FREE! An Introduction to English Medieval Literature By Charles Sears Baldwin Longmans Green, 1922
English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages By E. K. Chambers Oxford University Press, 1945
A Companion to the Medieval Theatre By Ronald W. Vince Greenwood Press, 1989
A History of Medieval Latin Literature By Maurice Hélin; Jean Chapman Snow W. Salloch, 1949 (Revised edition)
Medieval Women's Visionary Literature By Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff Oxford University Press, 1986
Violence against Women in Medieval Texts By Anna Roberts University Press of Florida, 1998
Sex and Gender in Medieval and Renaissance Texts: The Latin Tradition By Barbara K. Gold; Paul Allen Miller; Charles Platter State University of New York Press, 1997
Framing the Family: Narrative and Representation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods By Rosalynn Voaden; Diane Wolfthal Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005
Types of Society in Medieval Literature By Frederick Tupper Biblo and Tannen, 1968
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